Telemedicine: To Infinity and Beyond

NASA Hubble Image: Grand Spiral Galaxy M81

In a recent interview with New Scientist magazine, Carnegie Mellon professor James Antaki, PhD discusses the ongoing effort of a group of NASA scientists and academic biomedical engineers working to develop the necessary applications and devices to support surgical procedures in space. The need for emergency surgical intervention has not yet occurred for an astronaut of any nationality, but experts agree that it is an unavoidable eventuality.

As man sets more distant goals for exploration, Mars for example, heath preparations must adapt. Travel to Mars is expected to take several months, and as Dr. Antaki explains, “there is a high likelihood of trauma or a medical emergency on a deep space mission.”

Developers have been working on solving two primary problems:

  • Surgery in zero gravity. Zero gravity greatly complicates what might be a simple surgical procedure here on Earth because without gravity, there is no means of containing the surgical site or minimizing contamination of the spacecraft. In response to this problem, developers have created a saline-filled box that rests on top of the patient and forms a watertight seal. This creates a sterile and contained environment in which robotic surgical instruments can be inserted and manipulated to perform the procedure.
  • The general lack of medical expertise several million miles from Earth. Does NASA recruit a physician with a extraterrestrial travel ambitions? One wouldn’t think that would be such a hard thing to find, but NASA opted to take the telemedicine route, and in doing so, ran into the same problem early adopters of traditional telemedicine struggled with here on earth: latency. Safely connecting an earthbound surgeon to an astronaut in deep space proves to be a significant challenge unto itself. NASA ran simulation tests, with excellent results, using a generic tele-surgery setup and incorporating the communication flow through a cascade control loop.
  • Dr. Antaki suggests that far before its “someday” voyage to outer space, the surgical device may be of more immediate use in operating rooms here on Earth. Because the device contains the surgical site and limits blood loss, surgical procedures that have a high complication relationship with blood loss, such as brain and spine surgeries, may benefit from the new technology.

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